CTS #art musing |
Synecdoche: Standing in for when memory escapes us: or why I love Fred Wilson
by Lynn del Sol
So I was recently assigned: “Pick an artwork that means something to you and write about it”. My first thought was, “Oh dear lord, not one of ‘those’ questions”. It’s akin to when social media websites ask you to fill in the About section. You know, when they ask you to list your favorite movies and books. It’s the question I always skip. It prompts all kinds of anxiety in a person like me. There’s simply too much - too many - to choose from. I’d have to qualify my answer with too lengthy of a response which social media sites always limit anyway, probably in anticipation of people like me. It’s a by-product of the contemporary world. It’s excess. It’s the one thing we can all agree we excel at. Anyway, if I can modify the question to: “Write about an artist whose work you’ve recently become obsessed with,” then we have a deal. I know exactly who I’d like to write about. Fred Wilson.
Fred Wilson is a conceptual artist that was born in the Bronx in 1954. He lives and works in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which just so happens to be where I live. He bought his place in 2001, right before the real estate boom. Sadly, I did not have his foresight. His studio is unmarked, so one could walk by it a thousand times and never know it was there, although I know just where it is, and I am totally guilty of lingering around, hoping to “run” into him. He has the windows frosted, gleaming white walls painted, and smooth concrete floors - all to mimic a gallery - his gallery.(1)
Wilson is best known…Well, he’s best known for a lot of things. For one, he has worked in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Craft Museum, The Whitney, Studio Museum, Harlem Museum, Brooklyn Museum, New York Historical Society, and the MOMA. So basically, every major museum in New York City. In 2003, he represented America at the Venice Biennial, and oh— did I mention he’s a MacArthur Fellow? Winning the genius award, in 1999?
Why do I know so much about Fred Wilson?, Will I ever get to the artwork I am supposed to be writing about? Well yes I will, and you will see how it is all connected. Patience please. I can tell you just few months ago, other than knowing of his name, I would have been hard pressed to tell you much else about him. It wasn’t until the New York Historic Society had his piece on view, Liberty/Liberté (2011), which than lead me to his exhibition Mining the Museum (1992), that it all clicked in my cluttered, excess filled mind. Fred Wilson, deservingly so, won the genius award because he may well be a genius.
Mining the Museum, in which Liberty/Liberté is derived from, are phenomenal works if, for nothing else, then how uncomfortable they cause one to feel. It is a rare day in art - or any genre for that matter- when what you go to stare at stares back at you. Both these works are what is often described as ‘meta-museology’ pieces. These are works that use the museum as a muse or the medium of art making itself: no different than a stone to be carved or a model that sits to be painted. It is in the associations, the placement, and the juxtapositions that create the ‘artwork’. Only within this particular context can the meaning come to light, however, that light can be incredibly harsh.
For example, in Mining the Museum, Wilson worked along side the staff at the Maryland Historical Society, where he literally ‘mined the museum’, meaning he pulled from their vast holdings of century old objects, which the museum long forgot or never quite committed to memory. Objects that, when placed together under the artist eye, become both the artwork and the exhibition. Objects like shackles; cigar store Indian statues, a public whipping post, a Ku Klux Klan hood, even a tattered canvas all found their way onto the main floor. But it is also how the artist used objects that are well known, well documented, and cherished; like the doll house, the fine sliver, the European busts, or the oil paintings. By Wilson’s hand, objects that had once told the same story for hundreds of years now, with the flick of a redirected spotlight, began speaking in an entirely new language.
The people in the background of the painting suddenly have the opportunity to tell their story. The pedestals that stood empty outshone those that were adored; the regal handcrafted chairs sat ignored, as the crowds focused on the whipping post. Judith Stein called it, “The Sins of Omission”(2). John Perreault called it “Synecdoche”, a Greek word meaning, “Not exactly a symbol or a metaphor: it is a figure of speech in which, most commonly, a part stands for the whole”(3). I believe this is well illustrated in the work Liberty/Liberté, where as after the exhibition was closed what remained on view at the New York Historical Society was a micro installation of Mining the Museum. In just a few feet of space, again using the cigar store Indians and the European busts, here Wilson adds the Phrygian cap. It is striking, blood red which jumps out from the otherwise very muted tones of the surrounding objects. This cap, whose meaning has long fallen out of popular folklore, stands in for, as Perreault so rightly points out, “The Whole”. The young, cigar store Indian boy stretches out his hand towards the bust of American forefather George Washington while tightly gripping the Phrygian cap. What this arrangement of objects is doing, and what Wilson is orchestrating in their placement, is narrating the whole. A simple red hat stands in for the demands of millions for freedom and liberty as the bust stands in for ideals not yet realized.
The real reason why I’m obsessed with Fred Wilson is because he’s provided me with an action method of sorts as a curator or a gallerist, for displaying and dealing with items of contested memory. But more so, he’s caused me to shine that harsh spotlight on myself, both indirectly and personally. It’s been almost twenty years since Mining the Museum; how is it that for so many years I focused my work on art and art history, and not have known about Fred Wilson? Is it my fault? Am I so comfortable or unaware of my privilege that I am not actively searching out artists of color, artists of dissent, or artists of ‘other’? I find that hard to believe considering my personal interests are so acutely attuned to works like his. How exactly it “just never came up” is worrisome to me. Is it that the contemporary world is so completely beguiled by excess that I simply overlooked him? Sadly, I don’t think that’s quite it either, but I am waaaay over my word count and Ouch! That light is starting to burn.
(1) Pollack, Barbara. “Fred Wilson Creates an Installation” art news. Lasted modified October 29 2013.
(2) Stein, Judith. “Sins of Omission: Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum.” Art in America. October 2003.
(3) Perreault, John. “Fred Wilson’s Quest.” Artopia Artsjournal. Last modified May 17, 2004.
Wilson, Fred. “Mining the Museum” Baltimore: The Contemporary and Maryland Historical Society, 1992